Satyagrah is a term comprising two words; satya or truth, and agrah or insistence. Hence, in its loose English interpretation, satyagrah means insistence on truth. In practice, however, satyagrah transpired into nonviolent resistance, passive resistance or civil resistance as a form of mass protest against the State. Gandhiji sometimes also referred to it as truth force or soul force. The practice was so successful in the Indian independence movement that Martin Luther King Jr. emulated it for the American Civil Rights Movement, and so did Nelson Mandela to protest against South African apartheid.
However, as the notion of satyagrah and its practice advanced, it started getting increasingly decoupled from its equation with passive resistance. A stage came when they no more remained synonyms. Gandhiji himself drew clear distinction between the two terms in his book Satyagrah in South Africa in 1928:
Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or nonviolence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”, in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha” itself or some other equivalent English phrase.
According to Gandhiji, there was scope for inclusion of violence in the methodology of passive resistance, no matter how remote. Secondly, passivity may also come to imply being weak, being unable to steadfastly and resolutely resist the might of the oppressor. Hence, it may connote a helpless or even escapist measure by the weak who are unable to fight the strong with the weapon of non violent resistance. satyagrah’s ethos was quite the opposite. It perceived nonviolence as a force greater than violence, and hence capable of fighting it effectively, and ultimately unarming it. Patient suffering was its driving force; one lets the oppressors use as much force and oppression as they can on the nonviolent protestors, until a stage came when they can incur no more violence or oppression. Their capacity to be violent would exhaust, but the capacity of the protestors to endure it non-violently would not. Such valiant endurance and resistance, by no means, amounts to cowardice.
Another important distinction Gandhiji drew between passive resistance and satyagrah was that while the former did not insist on unequivocal adherence to truth under any and all circumstances, and at any and all cost, satyagrah did include truth as a faith induced, nonnegotiable instrument in its ideological constitution.
Gandhiji said conclusively on the matter, which is recorded in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, “Satyagrah is the weapon of the strong, it admits of no violence under any circumstances whatsoever, and it ever insists upon truth. I think I have made the distinction perfectly clear [between satyagrah and passive resistance]’.
Satyagrah is unique in its conception as opposed to other resistance movements which strive to prove wrong or to defeat the opponent. On the other hand, if situation so demands, satyagrah even goes to the extent of cooperating with the opponents to meet the end objective. Its foundation is empathy and compassion. Gandhiji expressed this aspect eloquently in his writing in Harijan, dated March 25, 1939, “The satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce the wrongdoer”.
Although satyagrah and passive resistance are still perceived as one and the same by certain quarters, the above deliberation dispels the misunderstanding.